The usual history of marriage begins with the theme of “marriage by capture”. In early times weddings were not about love and family, but rather about acquisition and conquer. Based on these early marriages, it is likely that the concept of a “best man” emerged first, although he probably wasn’t called that, but instead was merely a co-conspirator, a warrior, and a thief. The first “ushers” or “groomsmen” were probably like a small militia, keeping the kidnapped bride’s family at bay and helping the groom to escape with his new wife. As weddings became less brutal and became governed by the church and the state, the “Best Man” took on the role as a witness for the wedding, ensuring the union was legal.
Bridesmaids and the maid of honor became part of the traditional wedding ceremony once weddings were planned. Many early weddings were held at the bride’s home and the first “maid of honor” was likely a reliable and trustworthy family servant who attended to the bride’s needs in the days preceding the wedding. Her duties likely included helping the bride get dressed, making the bridal wreath, decorating for the wedding feast, and preparing the trousseau. Later, like the best man and the groomsmen, the bridesmaids and the maid of honor would have been called into duty as witnesses for the ceremony, helping to validate its authenticity.
Today, the tradition of the wedding party continues on. Many of the original duties performed by the best man and the maid of honor are no longer relevant in modern society, but they both still serve many functions in the modern wedding. Both the best man and the maid of honor are traditionally the primary witnesses for legal documents like the marriage certificate. It is still customary for the maid of honor to tend to the bride during the wedding, helping to straighten the bride’s veil and train, and to hold the bouquet. In most weddings, the best man stands alongside the groom during the ceremony, a tradition which is reminiscent of the earliest weddings when the best man’s primary duty was to ensure the safety of the groom during the capture of his bride.
Luckily, bride stealing is no longer a common practice. But it is fun to know the history of some of our Western wedding traditions.
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